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Housing

‘We can’t say we don’t know how to solve homelessness’: Charity says lockdown success leaves no excuses

The head of homelessness charity Crisis tells The Big Issue he wants to “challenge the status quo” to end homelessness for good.

The pandemic has shown there are no excuses for failing to tackle homelessness in the UK, according to the head of homelessness charity Crisis Matt Downie.

Downie took over the role of chief executive from Jon Sparkes at the start of 2022 and promised to “challenge the status quo” just as efforts to end homelessness reached a forked road.

The Covid pandemic sparked comprehensive efforts to get rough sleepers off the streets and into hotels across the UK, with work ongoing to ensure as many people as possible never return to homelessness.

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But with the success of the vaccination programme, many of the measures brought in during the pandemic have now been removed and in their wake is a cost of living crisis that threatens to plunge more people into homelessness.

It’s a challenge that ministers must overcome if they are to achieve their goal of ending rough sleeping by 2024. But many of the barriers that stood in the way before the pandemic still exist, according to Downie, even if the political will may well now be there to tackle them.

“You can no longer say we don’t know what to do on homelessness,” Downie tells The Big Issue. 

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“We need central leadership and ambition to make housing affordable and we need to prevent evictions from the private rented sector. The one thing that didn’t happen in the pandemic is that build, build, build. That never really applied and still doesn’t apply to people on low incomes, who can’t afford so-called affordable rents. 

“Unless we sort it out, we’ll be here in this situation for years.”

That’s quite the list of things to tackle for Downie in his “dream” job.

He took the top role at Crisis after spending seven years at the charity, previously as the director of policy.

But homelessness has occupied the majority of his career –– his first job was at Shelter and he moved back into homelessness after a stint at a disability charity.

The issue has always had a pull for him, he tells The Big Issue, from a personal and practical perspective.

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“I’ve had periods in my life where I didn’t have anywhere to live, where I’ve come very close to the sorts of situations that we see in our services,” Downie says. 

“I’ve just always felt very keenly that it’s a cause that is, of course, it’s urgent all the time, but I’ve always felt really strongly that this is entirely solvable as an issue.”

The early days of Downie’s reign have shown clear signs that is the case, and include at least one notable success.

The Vagrancy Act, the Napoleonic Wars-era law that has criminalised rough sleeping and begging for two centuries, is set to be axed after the Westminster government announced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would repeal it.

Crisis has led the Scrap the Act campaign in recent years in a bid to consign it to history.

Downie calls the act a “symbolic and practical disaster” and an indictment of how we, as a nation, treat people who fall into street homelessness.

As a consultation on what should replace the act is set to close next week, Downie insists compassion is the way forward as some police forces across the country already exemplify.

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He says: “When you see police officers and police forces collaborate, really special things can happen. But when you see police officers, just punitively arresting, finding and giving people criminal records, they’re creating a bit of a bigger headache for themselves.”

A rush of facts and figures released this week underlined both further progress and the double-edged sword of further challenges.

On the one hand, ministers have promised to scrap ‘no-fault’ evictions, a leading driver of homelessness that Downie is looking to prevent. On the other, that was three years ago and Shelter revealed almost 230,000 renters have been handed an eviction notice since.

On the one hand, statutory homelessness statistics showed stability in England with around 67,000 households asking councils for help to avoid homelessness between October and December 2021. On the other, the statistics showed a surge in no-fault evictions.

On the one hand, the number of people spotted sleeping rough in London dropped by 10 per cent in a year during the first three months of 2022. On the other, the number of people “living on the streets”, entrenched in street homelessness, has grown by 15 per cent in the English capital over the same period.

These all show that we have now reached a tipping point.

“It’s been one of the most impressive periods of tackling homelessness,” says Downie.

“When you take that alongside the ban on evictions, the increase in local housing allowance, and a number of other things that were really good that the government did during the pandemic. But what we now see is that they’re all being undone.

“So in all intents and purposes, and in all reality, homelessness provision is now the same as it was before the pandemic, but with a bit less housing to go around.”

The solution to ending homelessness is perhaps an obvious one then: providing a home.

While Crisis isn’t about to start to build them, Downie says his priority is to unlock as much new housing stock as possible to provide a place for people who are homeless to live.

Much of his vision is based on the methods that have proved so successful in Finland, where street homelessness has been significantly reduced in the last few decades through a Housing First model where people are provided homes alongside intensive support.

Downie has worked closely in recent years with Juha Kaakinen, the driving force behind Finland’s Y Foundation, who recently retired from leading Housing First efforts in the Nordic country.

It is no surprise that Downie is keen to emulate that success in the UK where Housing First continues to be rolled out.

“The take up of Housing First, particularly in England, is far too slow,” he says. “There is no service in homelessness with a better evidence base and so there is no reason not to go faster. I would say that the examples from across the world – we don’t even need to look at them anymore. The results from the pilots in England show just like everywhere else 80 to 90 per cent tenancy sustainment rates.

“I want Crisis to be agitating for and showing how that’s the way to end homelessness, moving away from quite traditional old ways of doing it, which haven’t haven’t shown anyone that they’re the way to to end homelessness at all.”

But perhaps it’s not just the structures that are driving homelessness that need to change for it to become a thing of the past.

Downie tells The Big Issue that a collective mind shift in how we view the issue can also play a part. 

“It’s clear that people are outraged by homelessness and they don’t like it existing, and they want governments to do something about it,” he says. But at the same time, people still feel quite highly, fatalistic and cynical about that happening. 

“We just need to be less cynical about it or even maybe less angry about it and more organised and just make sure that the things that so obviously need to happen, happen.”

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